PA Supreme Court on Forfeiture: No Jury Trial, No Problem

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ November 28, 2014

Forfeiture is again in the news (see our previous posts here and here) as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last week that a person’s home/and or other property  connected to the commission of a crime may be legally taken by the state through summary judgment, that is, without any requirement of a jury trial.

Gregory Palazzari owned and operated a Sunoco Station in State College, PA, known as “Greg’s Sunoco.”  In 2010, he plead guilty to multiple sales of cocaine.  The State Attorney General alleged that Palazzari used the gas station to store drugs and as a meeting place for transactions.  After a period of discovery, the trial judge approved the Commonwealth’s motion for summary judgment finding that there was no legitimate dispute that Palazzari was the owner of the station and that the property should be forfeited.  A plurality of the Commonwealth Court reversed on procedural grounds.  The Commonwealth appealed to the state’s high court.

In Commonwealth v All That Certain Lot or Parcel of Land Located at 605 University Drive, 2014 WL 6474938, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed which procedural rules apply in forfeiture proceedings under the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act. Under the Court’s holding, the Rules of Civil Procedure generally apply to forfeiture proceedings, including the possibility of summary judgment when appropriate, where the forfeiture statute does not specifically require otherwise.

Forfeiture actions are civil proceedings resulting from criminal wrongdoing. In forfeiture cases, the state argues that specific monies or property are the product of criminal activity and thus should be forfeited. While some constitutional criminal rights apply to forfeiture cases such as the right against self-incrimination, the fully panoply of rights do not. For instance, forfeiture proceedings are judged on a lower burden of proof than the formidable “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” standard most are familiar with. As we have reported here in previous posts, forfeiture can sometimes result in devastating outcomes for unsuspecting friends and family.

Generally, the Rules of Civil Procedure are statutory rules establishing court procedure in civil cases. Because the legislature created the rules, they are allowed to abrogate or substitute other rules in certain types of cases. In 605 University Drive, the Court essentially holds that the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act operates in this way;  although the statutory scheme provides some specific procedural rules for forfeitures, the gaps are to be filled with the general civil rules. The Court then asked whether any provision of the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act conflicted with the summary judgment rule, Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2.

The Court found that the lower court had erred in holding that Section 6802(i) of the Forfeiture Act mandates a hearing regardless of the existence of factual disputes. That subsection provided that, “upon the filing of a claim for the property setting forth a right of possession, the case shall be deemed at issue and a time shall be fixed for the hearing.” The Court read this provision as requiring notice of the forfeiture petition and the factual predicate for it. Requiring anything further, according to the Court, would be wasteful and useless.  Because there is no conflict between Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2 and the Forfeiture Act, summary judgment can be utilized to facilitate the fair, orderly, and efficient course of proceedings and eventual disposition of a matter.

While this decision is somewhat abrasive in its outcome, it is in accord with how state courts have treated forfeiture cases in the past.  Expect further litigation on the specific contours of conflict between the forfeiture act and the civil rules. For defense lawyers, the most interesting issue to watch will be how the discovery process will play out in these cases. In theory, the Commonwealth might have to turn over police reports and other documentation long before it might otherwise have to in some criminal cases.

If you believe you or someone you know may be targeted by the Commonwealth for forfeiture of property, contact an attorney at Fairlie & Lippy today to discuss your case.

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